With 20 studio albums under his belt and countless other songs that have never seen the light of day, Bruce Springsteen is one of the most prolific and popular musicians of his generation.
“The Boss” has sold 150 million albums and continues to be wildly successful, with his most recent release, 2020’s Letter To You, also hitting number one in the UK.
Springsteen has built a career on the power of storytelling, so here are three things you can learn about writing from the 20-time Grammy award-winner.
1. Write what you know…
You don’t have to dip far into Springsteen’s back catalogue to find intensely personal songs. Much of his five-decade career has been spent chronicling his own stories, and that of the New Jersey folk he has known.
Indeed, writing about places and people from his experiences has been a feature of his music since the very beginning. Debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. is essentially an autobiographical work about his life growing up in the state, telling of the “greasy lake” near his home on ‘Spirit In the Night’ and his father’s employment in ‘Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?’
Writing about what you know gives your work authenticity. Specific detail helps people relate to you, and it gives you a genuine and trusted voice as your audience instinctively understand that you know what you’re talking about.
There are countless examples of this in Springsteen’s work. One of the most famous lines from the brilliant ‘4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’ is:
“Did you hear, the cops finally busted Madam Marie,
for tellin’ fortunes better than they do…”
The “Madam Marie” mentioned in the song was a real-life fortune teller who worked on the Asbury Park Boardwalk. Marie Castello died in June 2008, aged 93.
‘Last Man Standing’ – one of the best moments from his 2020 album Letter To You – tells the story of how Springsteen is now the last surviving member of The Castiles, the band he joined in 1965.
Of course, you could draw a map of New Jersey from landmarks mentioned in Springsteen’s lyrics. From ‘Atlantic City’ to ‘My Hometown’, many of his stories come from what he knows – even the Highway 9 from his most celebrated hit, ‘Born To Run’, namechecks the main stretch of road that ran through his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey.
If you’re struggling to come up with content, start writing about what you know.
‘Racing In The Street’ talks of a girl “waiting tonight down in the parking lot/outside the Seven-Eleven store.” Detail is incredibly evocative (compare it to a simpler “waiting in a parking lot”) and immediately puts your audience in a place where they are creating images in their mind and engaging with your story.
It’s not just your experiences your readers are interested in. They are also keen to hear your thoughts on topical matters.
Much of the 2001 album The Rising sees Springsteen process his feelings and thoughts on the devastating events of 9/11. ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ considers the police shooting of Amadou Diallo. ‘Rainmaker’ is a not-very-thinly veiled criticism of the presidency of Donald Trump.
Your audience wants you to put current matters into context, and to make sense of the world around them.
2. …but put yourself in your audience’s shoes
Two of the most successful recording artists of all time have built a career on telling the stories of the everyday American.
Springsteen is the hero of the blue-collar worker in the US, alongside his New York contemporary, Billy Joel, whose stories of steel mill workers (‘Allentown’) and Long Island fishermen (‘The Downeaster “Alexa”’) also shared the woes of hard-working people.
Finding heroism in the struggles of everyday folk has been one of Springsteen’s successes, as his songs chime with the audience on an intensely personal level.
Take this, from 1975’s ‘Badlands’:
“Workin’ in the fields
That’ll get your back burned
Workin’ ‘neath the wheels
‘Til you get your facts learned”
Siding with the common American is a theme running through Springsteen’s output, and a lesson for every writer. Your audience will engage with you if you talk about their worries, concerns, and issues. What is bothering them? What are the challenges they face? What hope can you give them?
Perhaps the best example of this approach is in the title track of Springsteen’s first US number one album, The River. It’s a song that resonates almost as much today as it did on its release 40 years ago.
“I got a job working construction
For the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain’t been much work
On account of the economy”
Of course, it is possible to combine the two points here – writing about what you know and putting yourselves in the shoes of your audience. From 1984’s ‘My Hometown’:
“Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back
To your hometown.”
Now, it’s possible that you’ve never experienced the issues your audience does. Perhaps the things that keep you awake at night are not the same as theirs.
This doesn’t stop you being able to empathise, however. As Springsteen confessed in his stage show, Springsteen on Broadway, he made it all up. He’s never raced cars or worked in a factory.
“I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life!” he says. “I’ve never done any hard labour. I’ve never worked 9 to 5. I’ve never worked five days a week. Until right now.
“I come from a boardwalk town that is tinged with just a little bit of fraud. So am I. Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something about which he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up!”
Understanding your audience, empathising with their problems, and demonstrating that you understand them and their concerns is a key part of engaging with people. Even though Springsteen acknowledges he is a “fraud”, he’s still enjoyed a stellar career on the back of doing these three things.
3. Deadlines can help you produce your best work
In February 1984, Springsteen handed over the album tapes of what would become the epoch-defining album, Born In The USA, to his manager, Jon Landau. Having listened to the tapes, Landau told the singer that he didn’t feel there was a strong enough “hit single” on the record and asked him to write another song.
As you might image, Springsteen was far from happy. He told Landau: “Look, I’ve written 70 songs. You want another one, you write it.”
Returning to his hotel room that evening with the words of his manager ringing in his ears, a dejected Springsteen set to work writing the “hit” that Landau wanted. He took it to the Hit Factory studio the following day – 14 February 1984 – and, after six takes, ‘Dancing In The Dark’ was recorded.
The irony of ‘Dancing In The Dark’ is, of course, that it is a wildly successful song – Springsteen’s biggest hit – about the challenges of a writer being forced to write to a deadline. Lines such as “this gun’s for hire” and “you can’t start a fire without a spark” highlight Springsteen’s state of mind and the difficulty of having to find inspiration.
Everyone who has tried to write will have felt like this at one time or another:
“They say you gotta stay hungry
Hey baby, I’m just about starvin’ tonight
I’m dyin’ for some action
I’m sick of sittin’ ’round here tryin’ to write this book”
The rest is history; the song won Springsteen his first Grammy award, and was a million-seller in the US. However, it wasn’t the first time he had been forced to write to a deadline.
Clive Davis rejected his debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. because he felt it didn’t have a “hit”, with the end result being the brilliant ‘Blinded By The Light’ – a huge global hit for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band in 1976.
Sometimes, when you’re up against a deadline, being forced to write can focus the mind and help you produce some of your best work.
Interestingly, Springsteen turned to writing about what he knew for both these hits.
‘Dancing In The Dark’ is a highly personal song about his own mental health issues, and the challenge of feeling like a “gun for hire”. ‘Blinded By The Light’ is a story about Springsteen’s own adolescence, from the E-Street Band’s “madman drummer” to his favourite teenage baseball team, “Indians in the summer”.
So, if you’re up against a deadline, write about something you know, and put yourself in the shoes of your audience and think “What might interest them?”
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Here’s a Spotify playlist of all the songs referenced above.